“Handsome, clever, and rich,” as J pointed out at the end of his last post is actually a terrible thing to make a character, unless you’re Jane Austen, in which case you’re a genius. I’ve mentioned the great lady’s head-scratching brilliance before, but if that passage in Persuasion confounds me, Emma Woodhouse is the greatest mystery of them all. How does Austen manage to build sympathy for a meddling snob whose cluelessness is a defining trait? In a million little ways is the right answer, but there are five particulars that have always stood out for me. (For anyone needing it, here’s a plot summary.)
1) She’s a good daughter
If anyone thinks Emma is insufferable, may I introduce you to her father? Mr. Woodhouse cannot sit anywhere that could possibly be drafty, leave his house, eat anything other than a thin basin of gruel, or allow others to do anything even sort of fun. He’s a giant buzzkill and a whiner. Yet Emma loves him. She doesn’t even want to marry because she could never leave him. She comforts and reassures him, keeps him company, and is more dutiful than many a daughter with better fathers. The reader’s eyes may roll out of her head at Mr. Woodhouse, but Emma loves him, and we love her for it.
2) Good intentions
Emma is perhaps most famous for sticking her nose in where it doesn’t belong. In many ways, she treats Harriet like a diverting project instead of a person. But does she really? Yes, she gives Harriet some pretty catastrophic advice on more than one occasion, but she means well. No healthy friendship is so thoroughly dominated by one friend over the other, but when Emma tells Harriet to reject Robert Martin, it is because Emma truly believes she can make a better match for her friend. When Emma encourages Harriet to set her sights on Mr. Elton it is because she thinks he is said better match. Emma wants to improve Harriet’s mind and station, so even though she goes about it all wrong, she does so utterly without malice.
3) She’s funny
A few gems:
“It was a delightful visit—perfect, in being much too short.”
“Mrs. Weston proposed having no regular supper; merely sandwiches, etc. set out in the little room; but that was scouted as a wretched suggestion. A private dance, without sitting down to supper, was pronounced an infamous fraud upon the rights of men and women; and Mrs. Weston must not speak of it again.”
“She could not be complying, she dreaded being quarrelsome; her heroism reached only to silence.”
4) I learned an important lesson today
By the end of the novel, Emma recognizes how she has harmed Harriet and feels the sting of it. She makes a point of trying to get along better with Jane Fairfax, admitting she has been unfair. And in the most important moment of the novel, after she has made fun of Miss Bates, Emma not only feels ashamed, she takes Mr. Knightley’s reprimand: “It was badly done, indeed!” knowing she deserves it.
5) Emma is me
J and I have a running joke with some friends that Emma is the Goddess of Slacker Academics. After she is clearly bested by Jane Fairfax at a party, the next day “She did most heartily grieve over the idleness of her childhood—and sat down and practiced vigorously an hour and a half.” Every lazy person with a small talent that could have been improved with regular practice has been there. And then there are the lists. Emma has made many lists of books to read, very good lists Mr. Knightley assures us, but never a list she actually completed. Yeah, I have made some impressive lists. I wonder if J has kept any of them? He helped me make the best one.
And I’ve had a Jane Fairfax in my life. That person who everyone likes and whom everyone naturally assumes will be your close friend, and yet you have a strong, irrational hatred for. A Jane Fairfax. Emma loathes the very thought of Jane Fairfax being in the neighborhood for three months, during which time Emma will be expected to socialize with her, “to always be doing more than she wished, and less than she ought!” Not only does that apply to Jane Fairfax, but to so many aspects of Emma’s life, and I get it.
These comparisons aren’t particularly flattering to admit, but these real flaws are why I love Emma. Austen didn’t shy away from creating a heroine “which no one but myself would like,” but that is precisely where Austen was wrong. Giving the world a heroine as flawed as we are in real ways, not interesting and grandly tragic ways, is Emma’s attraction. Some readers can’t get past Emma’s snobbery, manipulation of Harriet, her vanity and pride, but for those who do, there is a mirror that, if you are not afraid to look, shows you a bit of who you are. And that’s not all bad. She did end up happily married to Mr. Knightley, after all.